The Meaning of the Word “Sleep” in First Thessalonians Chapter Five
The word “sleep” as seen in English translations of the book of First Thessalonians in the New Testament of the Bible conveys two distinctly different meanings. This is evident contextually and linguistically, elements that are related (interconnected) and which comprise Paul’s overall thesis that he imparts to those who comprise the “church of the Thessalonians.” Both elements will be explained and then applied in the evaluation and conclusion of this study.
The context of the book addresses at least two major themes: (1) The soon return of Jesus Christ to snatch away those who have believed in Him (vv. 1:10; 4:13-18; 5:23) and (2) The necessity to live a life of holiness in order to escape any harsh judgment from Christ upon His return by insuring one’s soul-salvation (vv. 2:11, 12; 3:2, 8, 10-13; 4:1-12; 5:1-9, 14-23).
God’s redemption program for man involves all three components of man — spirit, soul, and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12).
Spirit-salvation is a free gift based solely on the completed penalty-price that Jesus Christ paid with His spiritual death on Calvary (Matthew 27:45, 46; John 19:30), which was a death that He alone could transact vicariously for mankind in order to satisfy the wrath of God toward sin and which grace-gift of salvation may be apprehended by anyone, but only by an instantaneously willful act of accepting-faith in Christ (Isaiah 53:6; John 3:6, 7; Acts 16:30, 31; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Ephesians 2:8, 9; 1 Peter 2:24). Spirit salvation is eternal and permanent, irrevocable by either man or God (John 6:37; 10:27-29; 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Ephesians 1:13, 14; 4:30).
Soul-salvation is a progressive process called “sanctification” (being set apart to a life of holiness), which is mentioned as the “will of God” for Christians in v.4:3. The process of sanctification can only apply to those who have been made spiritually alive from their condition of being “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), and which depends solely upon success in the process — maturation in God’s Word and perseverance in works that emanate out of faithfulness during a Christian’s temporal life (1 Corinthians 15:2; Hebrews 2:3; 10:39; James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:9).
Whereas spirit-salvation is eternal in nature, soul-salvation is only millennial in nature. Whereas spirit-salvation is a grace-gift from God based solely on the work of Christ on the cross and may only be apprehended by faith alone in Christ alone; soul-salvation is not a gift but a contest (race), which has its focus on rewards for service and achieving the “inheritance” and which determines whether or not a Christian will be taken from the “body of Christ” to become part of the “bride of Christ” to rule and reign with Him during the Messianic Era — the thousand year reign by Christ over the earth (Romans 8:17; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 19:7, 8; 20:4-6; 22:12).
Body-salvation will occur after a Christian’s temporal life (1 Corinthians 15:35-55).
The focus of this epistle is that Christ will certainly and unexpectedly return, and it is paramount that Christians be properly prepared for His return.
The word “sleep” in the New Testament is often used as a euphemism for the “state of physical death.” This is clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 15:18 & 51, two verses in a passage that depicts the importance of the resurrection of Christ as it relates to both those who are physically dead and those who remain physically alive. The Greek root word in this case, as well as in many others, is koimao, which can refer to physical sleep but is also used to refer to physical death.
And this is indeed the word that Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 & 15 where it is clear that he is referring to Christians who have passed on from this life. Yet Paul uses a completely different word, which is translated “sleep,” in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, 7, & 10. The Greek root word in these three verses is katheudo, which in addition to being used at times to refer to the state of slumber is also used in the New Testament to refer to one who is “spiritually asleep,” i.e., secure and unconcerned in sin or indolent and careless in the performance of spiritual duty — one who lives in accordance with one’s old sin-nature (Romans 13:11-13; Ephesians 5:14).
Contextually, within the framework of exhorting his readers to progressively strive toward sanctification (vv. 4:1-12), Paul assures those who comprise the church in Thessalonica (believers in Christ) that they, as well as those Christians who have “fallen asleep” (are physically dead), will together participate in the coming rapture — an event that although will result in an eternal benefit for all (v. 4:17b), can also have a negative millennial outcome for those who remain in a spiritual carnal state of uncontrolled darkness (vv. 5:1-7).
(13) But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [are physically dead], lest you sorrow as others [those who are spiritually dead] who have no hope. (14) For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep [are physically dead] in Jesus. (15) For this we say to you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive [physically] and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [are physically dead]. (16) For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead [physically] in Christ [those referred above “who have fallen asleep”] will rise first. (17) Then we who are alive [physically] and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. (18) Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Immediately following this passage Paul reminds his readers that there can be a negative effect on those Christians who fail to anticipate the Lord’s return by failing to be concerned with growing in and living a life of spiritual richness. These individuals are seen as “spiritually asleep,” who live uncontrolled (“drunk”) lives in a state of spiritual darkness (“darkness; night”), who will suffer loss rather than future rewards at the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Colossians 3:24, 25; Revelation 22:12) — who will, although eternally saved (spirit-salvation), will fail to obtain their soul-salvation. They will be saved eternally, but with bleak prospects during the theocratic reign of Christ for one thousand years, the coming Messianic Era.
The words translated “sleep” as seen in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, 7 & 10 have as their immediate antecedent the condition described in verse 3, the condition of those Christians who refuse to take Christ’s return seriously, living their lives in such an unholy way that will bring “sudden destruction” (negative judgment) upon them when He returns to snatch (rapture) them from the earth.
Paul goes on to declare that God’s purpose for His children is that they should not be subject to this wrath (negative judgment — the result of the “terror of the Lord,” which will be meted out to unfaithful Christians at His judgment seat when the “Lord will judge His people” and indeed will then be “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” [2 Corinthians 5:10, 11; Hebrews 10:29-31]), but that His purpose is that they should “obtain [soul] salvation” through Jesus Christ (v. 5:9). He then states that no matter whether Christians are “spiritually awake” (living a holy life) or “spiritually asleep” (living an unholy life), they all are recipients of spirit-salvation as a result of Christ’s vicarious death and will, in the final analysis, live eternally together with Him (v. 5:10), which is a confirmation of what he stated above in verse 4:17b.
The word “sleep” in First Thessalonians is seen by various scholars differently, at least in two ways. These contrasting views are well presented by the Believer’s Bible Commentary in its remarks on verse 5:10, as follows:
This verse emphasizes the tremendous price our Lord Jesus Christ paid to deliver us from wrath and insure our salvation. He “died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”
There are two ways of understanding the expression “whether we wake or sleep.” Some scholars understand it to mean “living or dead” at the time of the Rapture. They point out that there will be two classes of believers at that time — those who have died in Christ, and those who are still living. So the thought would be that whether we are among the living or the dead at the time of Christ’s return, “we” shall “live together with Him.” Christians who die lose nothing. The Lord explained this to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in Me, though he may die [i.e., a Christian who dies before the Rapture], he shall live [he will be raised from among the dead]. And whoever lives and believes in Me [a believer who is alive at the time of the Rapture] shall never die . . . .” (John 11:25, 26).
The other view held by scholars is that “wake” or “sleep” means “watchful or worldly.” In other words, Paul is saying that whether we are spiritually alert or carnally indifferent to spiritual things, we will be caught up to meet the Lord. Our eternal salvation does not depend on our spiritual keenness during the closing moments of our time on earth. If truly converted, “we” will “live together with Him” when He comes again, whether we are on the tiptoes of expectancy or in the prone position of slumber. Our spiritual condition will determine our rewards, but our salvation depends on faith in Christ alone.
Those who hold this second view point out that the word for “wake” is the same word translated “watch” in verse 6. And the word for “sleep” is used in verses 6 and 7 to mean “insensitivity to divine things, involving conformity to the world” (Vine). But it is not the same word used in 4:13, 14, and 15 to mean death.
[Footnote: The words in the original are as follows: “wake” in 5:10 and “watch” in 5:6 are gregoreo (the origin of the masculine name “Gregory,” or “watchful”). “Sleep” in 5:6, 7 stands for katheudo, which can refer to literal sleep or “spiritual laziness and indifference” (Arndt and Gingrich). In 4:13-15, “sleep” translates koimao.]
As expressed in the evaluation (above), it is apparent to this commentator that Paul’s message to Christians in Thessalonica is that although all Christians (dead or alive) will participate in the coming Rapture and although a Christian’s spirit-salvation guarantees an eternity with Christ, there will be serious consequences for those Christians who do not anticipate Christ’s return by evidencing a life of progressive sanctification — a life of maturation in God’s Word and of perseverance in works that emanate from faithfulness.
 Believer’s Bible Commentary by William MacDonald, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995, pp. 2042, 2046